How to go from clinging on the bannister to taking stairs with confidence


Do the stairs wear you out or make you nervous? Here’s how you can go from clinging on to climbing (and descending) with confidence.

It’s funny what a flight of stairs can do to you. My friend’s flat is up three flights of stairs and, even though I consider myself pretty fit, I always feel that last flight of stairs!

Some people I know haul themselves up using the handrail (often muttering under their breath!). Others bound up a flight of stairs yet are uncertain on the way down, especially if it’s very steep or there’s no handrail, when it can be downright frightening.

Taking the stairs can be hard work (or anxiety-inducing) and can sometimes make you ‘feel your age’. But you aren’t feeling your age; you are feeling your leg muscles, your heart and lungs working. And, whatever your age, you can strengthen those muscles to make the stairs easier.

You may have seen other people around you struggle more and more with the stairs as they got older (and didn’t maintain their fitness).

I remember feeling sad when my grandmother stopped going to one of her bridge clubs because there was a flight of stairs up to the club room. She just didn’t have the strength to get up those stairs. Some people feel unsteady on the stairs and are worried they will fall. My friend’s mother is capable of climbing the stairs but is too worried to do so alone.

When we avoid going somewhere, we lose out on seeing people, doing something we enjoy and simply taking part in life.

I know you don’t want this to happen.

Now is the time to take action to ensure you can bound up and down the stairs for years to come. The great thing is that all we need to get fit for the stairs is…some stairs. 

Taking the stairs doesn’t just keep you fit to take the stairs even more though! It is excellent exercise – it works your heart and lungs and strengthens important muscles. This improved aerobic fitness and muscular strength will ensure you feel fitter every day. You will have more energy and find all the things you want and need to do easier – gardening, keeping up with your grandchildren, getting out and about and travelling.

Unfortunately, we have too many reasons not to take the stairs now, especially when we are out and about. Stairs can be hard to find in shopping centres or other public buildings. But seek them out we must!

So, here’s what you can do:

  1. Anytime you see a flight of stairs, take it. Even if you walk by a small set of 5 steps, go up them! You will get an immediate energy boost, and all these small ‘steps’ will add up to improve your strength and endurance.
  2. Avoid escalators and lifts like the plague. Instead of groaning when you see the stairs, start to see them as an opportunity. Even climb an extra flight or two if you can! Perhaps you can track the number of flights you take each day? You could set a daily minimum or try to beat a previous record.
  3. When you are at home, take a break from whatever you are busy with to go up and down the stairs. It’s a great way to use an ad break on TV, or while you wait for the kettle to boil. Perhaps you do a flight of stairs each time you send an email or finish a chapter of your book? If you are at work or home and there is a toilet on a different floor, maybe take the stairs each time you need to go. If you do any exercises at home already (maybe some morning stretches?), then you can easily intersperse a few flights of stairs into your routine.
  4. To get the maximum benefit when you take the stairs, take a second to:
    1. Pull yourself up tall (the better your posture, the more you will activate the right muscles)
    2. Place your whole foot on each step and push up from the heel
    3. Use the bannister or handrail for support only (if needed). You should not be pulling yourself up with your arms. Instead, think about propelling yourself up with your leg and buttock muscles.

Pay attention to your muscles and breathing while you are going up and down the stairs. Focus on the movements and notice how your leg muscles feel.

Make a point of thinking about what this will help you to do. Perhaps you want to feel more confident in taking public transport without worrying about escalators being out of order? Or you might like to have more energy to race around with your grandchildren? Maybe you are planning a trip and don’t want to miss out on any excursions because you’re afraid you won’t be able to keep up with the group?

It’s best to do little and often – enjoy yourself and feel good about what you have done.

We know that, for some of you, going down is harder than going up, especially if you feel unsteady or your knees hurt.

We have heard the suggestion that you walk up the stairs, and slide down the bannister! While this sounds like fun, you may also want to learn some exercises which will help you feel stronger and more steady on the way down the stairs.

Scroll down for details on our home exercise videos which will help you improve your balance and feel stronger and steadier on the stairs. 

A couple more things to think about:

  • If your stairs are anything like mine, they can occasionally become another storage area (they do look a bit like shelves!). Make sure to clear all the debris first, so there’s nothing for you to trip over.
  • If you wear bifocals, take extra care (or use another pair of glasses when taking the stairs). Wearing bifocals makes you more likely to miss steps and kerbs or to trip over things.
  • Where possible (and certainly if you are actively seeking out stairs to use to get fitter), use stairs with a wide tread. When you can fit your whole foot on the step, you will feel steadier and use more of the right muscles.

Remember that when you find yourself huffing and puffing up the stairs, it’s not your age you’re feeling, it’s your body! The good news is, you can make your body fitter and stronger, whatever your age. Just as you can build the fitness to make the climb up easier, you can also improve your balance and control to feel stronger and steadier on the way down the stairs.

So, let’s change our perspective on the stairs. Instead of dreading them, we should approach them with gusto. Relish the opportunity to improve your strength and fitness!

I would love to know how you feel about the stairs. Do you avoid them wherever possible? Do you huff and puff a bit, or find it harder on the way down? What activities or places would you miss out on if you were to start finding the stairs harder work?

Performing regular strength and balance exercise will help you to feel steadier on the stairs.

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All material in this article and video is provided for information and educational purposes only. It is not advice and should not be relied on as such. Always consult an exercise or health professional if you have any health issues and need personalised advice. With this in mind, we hope you enjoy reading our articles and watching our videos.

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